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Peter Corneille

Exact Racine and CORNEILLE’S noble fire
Show’d us that France had something to admire.
                                                                        POPE.

THE great Corneille having finished his studies, devoted himself to the bar; but this was not the stage on which his abilities were to be displayed.—He followed the occupation of a lawyer for some time, without taste, and without success. A trifling circumstance discovered to the world and to himself a different genius. A young man who was in love with a girl of the same town, having solicited him to be his companion in one of those secret visits which he paid to the lady, it happened that the stranger pleased infinitely more than his introducer. The pleasure arising from this adventure excited in Corneille a talent which had hitherto been unknown to him, and he attempted, as if it were by inspiration, dramatic poetry. On this little subject, he wrote his comedy of Melite, in 1625. At that moment the French drama was at a low ebb; the most favourable ideas were formed of our juvenile poet, and comedy, it was expected, would now reach its perfection. After the tumult of approbation had ceased, the critics thought that Melite was too simple and barren of incident. Angered by this criticism, our poet wrote his Clitandre, and in that piece has scattered incidents and adventures with such a licentious profusion, that the critics say he wrote it rather to expose the public taste than to accommodate himself to it. In this piece the persons combat on the theatre; there are murders and assassinations; heroines fight; officers appear in search of murderers, and women are disguised as men. There is matter sufficient for a romance of ten volumes; “And yet (says a French critic) nothing can be more cold and tiresome.” He afterwards indulged his natural genius in various other performances; but began to display more forcibly his tragic powers in Medea. A comedy which he afterwards wrote was a very indifferent composition. He regained his full lustre in the famous Cid, a tragedy, of which he preserved in his closet translations in all the European languages, except the Sclavonian and the Turkish. He pursued his poetical career with uncommon splendour in the Horaces, Cinna, and at length in Polieuctes; which productions (the French critics say) can never be surpassed.

At length the tragedy of “Pertharite” appeared, and proved unsuccessful. This so much disgusted our veteran bard, that, like Ben Jonson, he could not conceal his chagrin in the preface. There the poet tells us that he renounces the theatre for ever! and indeed this eternity lasted for several years!

Disgusted by the fate of his unfortunate tragedy, he directed his poetical pursuits to a different species of composition. He now finished his translation in verse, of the “Imitation of Jesus Christ, by Thomas à Kempis.” This work, perhaps from the singularity of its dramatic author becoming a religious writer, was attended with astonishing success. Yet Fontenelle did not find in this translation the prevailing charm of the original, which consists in that simplicity and naïveté, which are lost in the pomp of versification so natural to Corneille. “This book,” he continues, “the finest that ever proceeded from the hand of man (since the gospel does not come from man) would not go so direct to the heart, and would not seize on it with such force, if it had not a natural and tender air, to which even that negligence which prevails in the style greatly contributes.” Voltaire appears to confirm the opinion of our critic, in respect to the translation: “It is reported that Corneille’s translation of the Imitation of Jesus Christ has been printed thirty-two times; it is as difficult to believe this as it is to read the book once!”

Corneille seems not to have been ignorant of the truth of this criticism, in his dedication of it to the pope, he says, “The translation which I have chosen, by the simplicity of its style, precludes all the rich ornaments of poetry, and, far from increasing my reputation, must be considered rather as a sacrifice made to the glory of the Sovereign Author of all which I may have acquired by my poetical productions.” This is an excellent elucidation of the truth of that precept of Johnson which respects religious poetry; but of which the author of “Calvary” seemed not to have been sensible. The merit of religious compositions appears, like this “Imitation of Jesus Christ,” to consist in a simplicity inimical to the higher poetical embellishments; these are too human!

When Racine, the son, published a long poem on “Grace” taken in its holy sense, a most unhappy subject at least for poetry, it was said that he had written on Grace without grace. During the space of six years Corneille rigorously kept his promise of not writing for the theatre. At length, overpowered by the persuasions of his friends, and probably by his own inclinations, he once more directed his studies to the drama. He recommenced in 1659, and finished in 1675. During this time he wrote ten new pieces, and published a variety of little religious poems, which, although they do not attract the attention of posterity, were then read with delight, and probably preferred to the finest tragedies by the good Catholics of the day.

In 1675 he terminated his career. In the last year of his life his mind became so enfeebled as to be incapable of thinking; and he died in extreme poverty. It is true that his uncommon genius had been amply rewarded; but amongst his talents we cannot count that of preserving those favours of fortune which he had acquired.

Fontenelle, his nephew, presents a minute and interesting description of this great man. I must first observe, what Marville says, that when he saw Corneille he had the appearance of a country tradesman, and that he could not conceive how a man of so rustic an appearance could put into the mouths of his Romans such heroic sentiments. Corneille was sufficiently large and full in his person; his air simple and vulgar; always negligent; and very little solicitous of pleasing by his exterior.—His face had something agreeable, his nose large, his mouth not unhandsome, his eyes full of fire, his physiognomy lively, with strong features, well adapted to be transmitted to posterity on a medal or bust. His pronunciation was not very distinct: and he read his verses with force, but without grace.

He was acquainted with polite literature, with history, and politics; but he generally knew them best as they related to the stage. For other knowledge he had neither leisure, curiosity, nor much esteem. He spoke little, even on subjects which he perfectly understood. He did not embellish what he said, and to discover the great Corneille it became necessary to read him.

He was of a melancholy disposition, had something blunt in his manner, and sometimes he appeared rude; but in fact he was no disagreeable companion, and made a good father and husband. He was tender, and his soul was very susceptible of friendship. His constitution was very favourable to love, but never to debauchery, and rarely to violent attachments. His soul was fierce and independent: it could never be managed, for it would never bend. This indeed rendered him very capable of portraying Roman virtue, but incapable of improving his fortune. Nothing equalled his incapacity for business but his aversion: the slightest troubles of this kind occasioned him alarm and terror. He was never satiated with praise, although he was continually receiving it; but if he was sensible to fame, he was far removed from vanity.

What Fontenelle observes of Corneille’s love of fame is strongly proved by our great poet himself, in an epistle to a friend, in which we find the following remarkable description of himself; an instance that what the world calls vanity, at least interests in a great genius.

Nous nous aimons un peu, c’est notre foible à tous:
Le prix que nous valons qui le sçait mieux que nous?
Et puis la mode en est, et la cour l’autorise,
Nous parlons de nous même avec tout franchise,
La fausse humilité ne met plus en credit.
Je sçais ce que je vaux, et crois ce qu’on m’en dit,
Pour me faire admirer je ne fais point de ligue;
J’ai peu de voix pour moi, mais je les ai sans brigue;
Et mon ambition, pour faire plus de bruit
Ne les va point quêter de réduit en réduit
Mon travail sans appui monte stir le théâtre,
Chacun en liberté l’y blame ou l’idolâtre;
Là, sans que mes amis prêchent leur sentimens,
J’arrache quelquefois leurs applaudissemens;
Là, content du succès que le mérite donne,
Par d’illustres avis je n’éblouis personne;
Je satisfais ensemble et peuple et courtisans;
Et mes vers en tous lieux sont mes seuls partisans;
Par leur seule beauté ma plume est estimée;
Je ne dois qu’à moi seul toute ma renommée;
Et pense toutefois n’avoir point de rival,
A qui je fasse tort, en le traitant d’égal.

I give his sentiments in English verse with more faithfulness than elegance. To write with his energetic expression, one must feel oneself in a similar situation, which only one or two living writers can experience.

Self-love prevails too much in every state;
Who, like ourselves, our secret worth can rate?
Since ’tis a fashion authorized at court,
Frankly our merits we ourselves report.
A proud humility will not deceive;
I know my worth; what others say, believe.
To be admired I form no petty league:
Few are my friends, but gain’d without intrigue.
My bold ambition, destitute of grace,
Scorns still to beg their votes from place to place.
On the fair stage my scenic toils I raise,
While each is free to censure or to praise:
And there, unaided by inferior arts,
I snatch the applause that rushes from their hearts.
Content by Merit still to win the crown,
with no illustrious names I cheat the town.
The galleries thunder, and the pit commends;
My verses, everywhere my only friends!
’Tis from their charms alone my praise I claim;
’Tis to myself alone, I owe my fame;
And know no rival whom I fear to meet,
Or injure, when I grant an equal seat.

Voltaire censures Corneille for making his heroes say continually they are great men. But in drawing the character of a hero he draws his own. All his heroes are only so many Corneilles in different situations.

Thomas Corneille attempted the same career as his brother: perhaps his name was unfortunate, for it naturally excited a comparison which could not be favourable to him. Gaçon, the Dennis of his day, wrote the following smart impromptu under his portrait:

Voyant le portrait de Corneille,
Gardez vous de crier merveille!
Et dans vos transports n’allez pas,
Prendre ici Pierre pour Thomas.

Editor’s Notes

 ¶ This article is lightly revised and slightly expanded from its original in early (1790s) editions of the Curiosities.